The Warmth of Other Suns Themes
The main themes in The Warmth of Other Suns are segregation and the caste system, the mirage of equality, and the American dream.
- Segregation and the caste system: Wilkerson shows how the Jim Crow South functioned as a caste system, with a pervasive code of oppression.
- The mirage of equality: Many Black Southerners idealized the North, but the reality they faced on arrival was harsher in several ways.
- The American dream: The Great Migration reflects the ethos of the American dream, exemplifying the promise of securing a better life through courage and hard work.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 887
Segregation and Caste Systems
Wilkerson describes the segregation and racism of the South as a caste system. The specific terminology is important, because the objective of a caste system is not just to discriminate but also to fix various sets of people in relationship to each other. A caste system is all-pervasive and absolute, dictating codes of conduct for every social interaction between dominant and oppressed castes. It is as omnipresent as air or water. Because of its pervasive nature, the caste system exercises a very powerful pull, which the Southern Black migrants had to fight against to make their northbound journeys. Under the caste system, there existed not just separate washrooms for whites and Blacks but also, in certain Southern courthouses, separate Bibles for white and Black defendants to swear on. A Black man needed to step off the sidewalk if a white man approached, and at traffic lights, Black drivers were supposed to give right of way to white drivers. On trams and buses, the Black seats were the ones right at the back, as they were in cinemas.
This caste system was upheld through severe punishments. Between 1890 and 1960, even asking a white storeowner for a bill could result in a Black person’s lynching. Asking for the bill was not the crime in itself; the real crime was forgetting one’s place. In the caste hierarchy, to stray from one’s fixed place was the greatest punishable offence. A particular feature of the caste system is the idea of the other as a sexual threat to the purity of the privileged female. The other is seen as animalistic, dangerous, and a threat to racial and social purity. Thus, even the suggestion of sexual misconduct against a white woman could cause a Black man to be castrated, tortured, mutilated, or killed. The fact that poor black women were far more at threat from white men than the other way round was completely dismissed. Despite the difficulty of leaving the caste system of the Jim Crow South, its atmosphere of degradation and danger was a central motivator of the Great Migration.
The Mirage of Equality
The Southern Black migrants escaping the South idealized the Northern cities to which they were journeying. They imagined these cities would be meccas of equality, polar opposites of the caste-ridden South. Perhaps this idyll was necessary to propel their monumental journeys. Perhaps its myth was perpetuated by older migrants who visited the South in their best finery and told tales of their grand lives up North. Whatever the cause for the idyll, the reality was far more complex. As Ida Mae, George Starling, and Robert Pershing Foster would discover, the “mirage of equality” of the great cities of the North and West was illusory. Ida Mae’s Chicago was divided along bitter racial lines, while George’s Harlem was beset with urban crowding and class tensions. As a physician in California, Pershing would be rejected on account of his race by none other than a Black woman. Late in his life, he would be charged with inappropriate behaviour by a white woman, resurrecting the ghost of Jim Crow. Racial hatred was a feature of the North, too.
The key difference was the way racism manifested itself. While the South was openly segregated, the people of the North and West professed racial equality but carried out segregation in their daily lives. The invisible race laws of the city were hard to read for the Southern Blacks, who had grown up in a world clearly labelled “COLORED” and “WHITE.” In Chicago, Detroit, and even New York and Los Angeles,...
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there existed race lines that confounded the newcomers, such as the white and Black parts of rivers for swimmers. Crossing the invisible line could invite death and spark race riots. However, though the cities of the North and West were more complex than the migrants had imagined, very few Southern Blacks returned from them. Cold and opaque as these cities could be, they were still preferable to the oppression of the Jim Crow South.
The American Dream
One of the less discussed aspects of the Great Migration is its uniquely American nature. It was a thoroughly American movement on account of the resourcefulness, tenacity, and enterprise of its participants. It was also an expression of the American Dream, in which sheer grit can make anything possible. In its occasional showiness and materialism, too, it was an American phenomenon. Perhaps the image that best fuses the Great Migration with the American Dream is Robert Pershing Foster’s long drive from Louisiana to California in his Buick. The exhilarating, sometimes troubling, journey along the open road of the American West carries all the exuberance and ambition of the American dream of navigating vast open spaces and building a new life from scratch. Ida Mae and George Gladney feel this openness and flexibility when they try out different jobs in Chicago. George Starling experiences it on the railroad, assisting new migrants.
In the context of the Great Migration, the American Dream acquires a double potency. The Southern Blacks had been kept out of the dream for the longest time. The Great Migration was in a way their chance for full American citizenship, though it would be their subsequent generations that would reap the Dream’s greater rewards.